Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The radiance of a thousand suns

In August 1945 atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Around 120,000 people, of which 95% were civilians, were killed outright. It is estimated that a further quarter of a million died from the after effects of the explosions. Six days after the second bomb was dropped Japan surrendered unconditionally, removing the requirement for an invasion of the Japanese mainland by Allied forces , an engagement that would undoubtedly have resulted in dreadful casualties on both sides. Hopefully the music community, as well as the world, will remember 2005 as the sixtieth anniversary of these terrible events, as well as the year of the premiere of an opera by John Adams.

My attempts to understand the almost incomprehensible events of 1945 led me to the recently published 109 East Palace by Jennet Conant. This is the story of the extraordinary secret community of allied scientists at Los Alamos in New Mexico that, in a race against the clock, created the two bombs that were dropped on Japan. The Los Alamos scientists had also been racing to beat the threat of a German atomic weapon. Nazi scientists working in the Kiaser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin had discovered in 1938 that the splitting of a uranium atom set free enormous quantities of energy, opening up the possibility of a chain reaction creating an explosion of unheard-of power. Their 'uranium project' had the full backing of Nazi Minister of Arnaments Albert Speer, and one of the leading German physicists, Werner Heissenberg (who won the 1932 Nobel prize in physics) later said: 'Since September 1941 we saw a clear road towards the atom bomb.' Created initially to head off the German atomic threat
the research centre at Los Alamos was led by the legendary J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Doctor Atomic of John Adam's opera.

The author of 109 East Palace is Jennet Conant, the granddaughter of former Harvard president and chief administrator of the Manhattan Project James B. Conant. S
he is unashamedly pro-Oppenheimer, and some will find this lack of objectivity a flaw, but despite this the new book makes a useful contribution to the Los Alamos literature. The title 109 East Palace comes from the nondescript office in Santa Fe that was the gatehouse for the secret compound created on the high mesa beyond the town. The book doesn't set out to be another academic study of Oppenheimer (right) and the development of the bombs. Instead it is a very human study of the people involved in the project, and the horrendous work pressures and ethical dilemnas that they faced. It tells how the young Oppenheimer failed to find a cure for his depression in medical treatment, and instead turned to Eastern mysticism, and in particular the Mahabharata, and other stories from the Hindu devotional poem the Bhagavad Gita. (Among others who turned to Hindu texts were T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, and somewhat surprisingly Beethoven, who in in his diary for 1816 wrote about the “Indian literature” he had been reading. After reading the Rig-Veda Beethoven wrote “God is immaterial and transcends every conception”.)

On the night before the first atomic test at the Trinity site Oppenheimer quoted this stanza from the Bhagavad Gita:

In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountain,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him

And after the first successful test explosion which confirmed the horrendous destructive power created by his team he quoted the lines where Vishnu tries to persuade the Prince to do his duty and take on his multi-armoured form:

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One...
I am become Death,
The shatterer of Worlds

Robert Oppenheimer was a brilliant scientist and intellectual. After the war he was appointed director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he was unofficial intellectual guru to an amazing roster of talent ranging from Nobel Prize winning physicists Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac, to the poet T. S. Eliot (neatly squaring the Sanskrit circle), and the historian Arnold Toynbee. Oppenheimer's mother was an artist, whose personal art collection included a Renoir, drawings by Picasso and Vuillard, a Rembrandt etching, and a Van Gogh. He was fond of the sonnets of John Donne, learnt Sanskrit to read the Hindu scriptures in the original, and read Marx's entire Das Kapital, in German, on a cross-country train trip. His musical tastes included Bach fugues and the late Beethoven Quartets, with the Op. 131 in C sharp Minor a particular favoutite.

Like every highly gifted person Oppenheimer was flawed. He was not averse to making highly damaging accusations against colleagues such Bernard Peters and Haakon Chevalier to throw the security services off his own scent as they investigated his left-wing sympathies. The political paths he continued to explore when working on the atomic bomb, and the doubts he later developed about the ethics of the develoment of the hydrogen bomb were used at the Gray Board hearings to categorise him as a security risk, and he lived out his final years as a marginalised figure.His treatment was a puzzling contrast to that handed out to scientists with proven Nazi connections. For instance the rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun joined the Nazi SS in 1939, and headed the Germans missile weapons project until 1945. As well as developing the V2 rocket which was used with considerable effect against Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands he was working on the A9/A10 rocket which was designed to reach as far as the USA. In 1945 von Braun, together with 500 employees, surrendered to US troops, and the key scientists and their prototype rockets were shipped to the US. In 1960 von Braun became director of the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, and in the 1970s he was made vice-director of NASA. Following his death in 1977 he was honoured with a statue, and the von Braun performance centre for the arts in Huntsville, Alabama.

Robert Oppenheimer fared less well, presumably because he was judged to have sympathised with the wrong enemy. The story of his security clearance and fall from grace is not covered in Doctor Atomic, which ends with the first test in 1945. I haven't seen the opera, but was impressed by the positive response it received. However from a distance ending it at the Trinity test seems a bit like ending the Ring with the Ride of the Valkyries. Interestingly 109 East Palace also tells us that John Adams was not the first to dramatise the Manhattan Project. In 1947 a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer blockbuster The Beginning or the End? hit the silver screens, with Hume Cronyn starring as Robert Oppenheimer, and Spencer Tracy as his military boss, General Leslie Groves. The film flopped at the box-office.

109 East Palace does not set out to be a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, or a detailed study of the Manhattan Project. The literature of the project is already very rich, with books such as Gregg Herken's extraordinarily well researched, detailed and virtually unreadable Brotherhood of the Bomb shortly to be joined by a new life of Oppenheimer from the late Abraham Pais. By contrast 109 East Palace is Oppenheimer-lite. I
nstead of placing him centre stage it uses an unpublished memoir by one of the first civilians recruited to the project, a young widow and Smith graduate Dorothy McKibbin, as the thread that binds the narrative together. McKibbin was close to Oppenheimer, and clearly besotted by him, which is another reason why the book lacks objectivity. 109 East Palace is useful book for anyone wanting to place the cold mechanics of weapons of mass destruction in a human context. But in the final analysis it is too superficial (much of the information in this article about the Manhattan Project comes from other sources) and subjective to provide anything more than a fascinating lightweight introduction to a subject that cries out for heavyweight coverage.

109 East Palace by Jennet Conant is published by Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-7432-5007-9
Los Alamos continues as a National Laboratory involved with nuclear weapons, and other activities. Interestingly, in view of the much publicised avian flu outbreaks, it is currently involved with researching
influenza genetic codes. Visit the facility via this link

There are some excellent photos of Los Alamos and the test site, plus coverage of Doctor Atomic on New Yorker music critic, and fellow blogger, Alex Ross' web site.

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) is a non-partisan international grouping of medical organisations dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. They work with the long-term victims of nuclear explosions and accidents from Hiroshima to Chernobyl, and their work has been recognised with the 1984 UNESCO Peace Prize, and 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. For the last 21 years IPPNW-Concerts has been working from its Berlin office with top musicians world-wide to raise funds for their work. The organisation is run by medical practitioner
Dr Peter Hauber and his wife, who I had the pleasure of meeting in Berlin last week.

As well as being a fantastic cause there is some music well worth exploring available on IPPNW-Concerts' own CD label, and in co-productions with Swedish label BIS. These are all live recordings of concerts promoted by IPPNW over the years. There are forty-nine CDs in the catalogue with composers ranging from Monteverdi to Elliot Carter. The nuggets worth mining include Furtwängler's Te Deum coupled with Brahms and Hindemith (CD40).

Of particular relevance to this article is Wort und Musik - 60 Jahre nach Hiroshima. This is a live recording made at the March 2005 'Nuclear Weapons Inheritance Project' which mixes readings in German from a range of authors including Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein and Sadako Kurihara with relevent music including the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Shostakovich's String Quartet No 8 and Schubert’s Quartettsatz. On the lighter side there are also a number of jazz recordings worth exploring, including the Berlin Philharmonic Jazz Group playing live in 2004 in the Philharmonie in Berlin with the world-famous baritone Thomas Quasthoff.

IPPNW co-productions with BIS also contain some real gems. My own favourite is a live Missa Solemnis from the Philharmonie in Berlin with Antal Doráti conducting the European Symphony Orchestra, University of Maryland Chorus, and a distinguished group of soloists. Another BIS co-production recorded at the Philharmonie with the New Berlin Chamber Orchestra and members of the Czech Philharmonic and HdK-Chamber Choir conducted by Martin Fischer-Dieskau includes two of Doráti’s own compositions (his Pater Noster, Prayer for Mixed Choir and Jesus oder Barabbas? a melodrama after a story by Karinthy Frigyes for Speaker, Orchestra and Choir) alongside works from Bartok and Martinu. Finally among the BIS co-productions a live Mahler Symphony No 9 with Rudolf Barshai conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra is a rarity well worth investigating. All proceeds from the sale of these CDs benefit those in dire need as a result of war, industrial and natural catastrophe. Need I say more?

Picture credits:
Nuclear explosion -
UCL Astrophysics Group
Robert Oppenheimer -
Gallery M
Book cover - Simon & Schuster
Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to The year is '72 and Musicians against nuclear weapons


Pliable said...

And 60 years on the nuclear debate is as topical as ever. See this news story today.

Pliable said...

European readers should note that performances of Doctor Atomic are scheduled in 2007 by Netherlands Opera.

Anonymous said...

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who tried to bring the war plans under control, received his first report on the SIOP 62 (for fiscal year 1962), he commented that it "frighten[ed] the devil out of me." Among the disclosures in these documents:

The SIOP included retaliatory and preemptive options; preemption could occur if U.S. authorities had strategic warning of a Soviet attack;

A full nuclear SIOP strike launched on a preemptive basis would have delivered over 3200 nuclear weapons to 1060 targets in the Soviet Union, China, and allied countries in Asia and Europe;

It was estimated that there would be 250 million causalities in the Soviet Union, China, and allied countries in Asia and Europe from a full nuclear SIOP preemptive strike.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Los Alamos, look what my employer, the University of California, has done there:


And they wonder why the government wants someone else to run it?

Chris Hertzog

MikeZ said...

We still have to balance the lives lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki against the many more lives that would have been lost on both sides had we had to invade Japan. The Bomb shortened the war by 3 or 4 years, and probably saved a million or so Japanese and Amreican lives.

Anonymous said...

Pliable writes: "Six days after the second bomb was dropped Japan surrendered unconditionally, removing the requirement for an invasion of the Japanese mainland by Allied forces, an engagement that would undoubtedly have resulted in dreadful casualties on both sides."

Just a note to mention that as time passes and historical perception become perhaps more objective, there are several other takes on what might have happened and what might have motivated the bombings. The Japanese were already decimated and had little or no offensive capacity left. Even a hawk like nuclear physicist Edward Teller insisted that the first bomb could have been dropped in the Tokyo Bay to show the Japanese what would come if they didn't surrender. It might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Contrary to past interpretations, recent histories have shown that even though the US only had two bombs at the time, there would have been many more within a few weeks. I can't remember the exact number, but at the time, Oakridge was using around a sixth or seventh of the entire electrical output of the United States to produce fissionable material. The claim that we only had three bombs (one was used in NM for a test) and couldn't spare any for demonstrations to the Japanese might not hold up. We could have waited in order to demonstrate the bomb.

Recent studies have also shown that one of the overriding factors for the quick bombing was to keep the Soviets from invading Japan. By quickly evaporating two cities, the Americans were able to take the entire country for themselves - a less savory motivation than saving lives by "removing the requirement for an invasion." The entire Red Army was on their Western front. It would have taken them months to prepare an effective invasion of Japan. Again, we could have waited until there were enough bombs to demonstrate them.

It might be a very long time before the world is in a position to evaluate exactly what happened. My wife, Abbie Conant, who is also a relative of James B. (though more distant than the author you speak of) recently completed a 15 minute music video memoralizing the victims of Hiroshima. You can see it at:


You will need broadband and Real Player. It addresses the horrors of the bombings in a far more direct manner than the Adams opera.

William Osborne
William Osborne

Brownian Motion said...

"the Mahabharata, and other stories from the Hindu devotional poem the Bhagavad Gita"
The Gita is part of the Mahabharata and not the other way around. The Mahabharata is one of the great Indian epics alongwith The Ramayana.
- Sandhya Rao